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Sociology can help

The incredible volume of “stuff” available through digital media demands that we learn to filter this information mindfully and ask critical questions about how these new information technologies may be shaping our lives and relationships.  Who has access? What kind?  How does gender affect how people interact on-line (or don’t)?  Can you really be “friends” with hundreds or thousands?  Who is programming and who is being programmed?   What about privacy? And copyright? Who actually reads those long Terms of Service documents before “agreeing”?  What are we to make of the data presented in the following short video review of the social media revolution? Consider too the sheer volume of activity  on the internet (See some data here about what takes place in only 60 seconds).

Sociology can help.  But most people don’t know this.  I still find some who assume sociology is social work–or maybe socialism.   Students often have no idea what they would do with a degree in sociology, or how this perspective could be useful to them now.  This brings me to an observation about an old social media–books.

In browsing bookstores, thrift stores, and garage sales over the years, I have found that anyone seeking insights on personal relationships and how to make sense of individual experience will find plenty of self-help books in psychology, and quite a few on religion/spiritual seeking.  In contrast, there are few books using a sociological perspective to help us interpret our personal biographies in the wider context of history and society—what C.Wright Mills calls the “sociological imagination.”  Fewer still are available for a general audience that explore how we create social worlds while at the same time being shaped by them.  This is what I am calling here “The paradox of society.”  The mostly tiny bookstore section labeled “Sociology” usually includes writings by anyone  making claims about the social world— from skilled social researchers to political “opinion makers” and radio talk show hosts with axes to grind.  This odd way of classifying knowledge stands out more because there are so few books to compare.  Why this bookstore section should be so small is a topic for another day.  While it would be great to have more accessible sociology writings available in bookstores,  we have wonderful resources available on the Internet to help us explore these important questions and expand our conversations.

Keeping the conversation going

When I offer a course in sociological theory,  I usually begin by sharing a short quotation from 20th century literary theorist Kenneth Burke.  Using the metaphor of a Victorian-era parlor conversation, Burke reminds us that people often enter into conversations about big ideas without too much sense of what is going on, or what people mean by what they are saying.

However, he suggests, if we hang around for a while, we can become confident enough to add our own voice to the mix, share our own experiences, and question the claims of others that seem undeveloped or even off-base. He describes this as “the unending conversation,” and, while his setting may not feel familiar to us,  it doesn’t take much imagination to shift our focus to the 21st century virtual “parlors” we visit everyday on the Internet.

This concept of an unfinished, evolving, and continuing conversation as the means to understanding the world can be inviting and may encourage respect for a variety of viewpoints.  Supporting the goal of  keeping the conversation going,” philosopher Richard Rorty concludes that to “see wisdom as consisting in the ability to sustain a conversation, is to see human beings as generators of new descriptions rather than beings one hopes to be able to describe accurately.”

Importantly, sociologist Patricia Hill Collins reminds us that people have different access to power in “generating descriptions”, and that those who benefit from current social arrangements have an investment in making sure their descriptions are taken more seriously.  Too often these dominant stories become the universal norm for evaluating other people’s experiences.  We should resist this, Hill Collins insists, because “no one group possesses the theory or methodology that allows it to discover the absolute ‘truth.’ Viewing  the world this way, as a joint creation, requires an acceptance of individual responsibility, a willingness to have difficult dialogues, and a commitment to collective action.  For this site, I’ll write occasional short pieces, and share resources I have found useful for thinking about this world we create together.  Many sociologists have taken up the challenge, and their work has inspired me to add my voice.

I invite you to explore and add to the resources presented in The Paradox of Society and enter the conversation in the spirit of Burke, Rorty, and Hill-Collins.  Burke doesn’t mention any rules of etiquette in his “unending conversation” (other than implying that we might watch for a while in order to find out what’s going on), but interactions on the Web can be more satisfying and productive with a few basic expectations.   A quick Internet search for “blog comment etiquette” yields many sample comment policies, and reviewing these policies before commenting here is a good idea.  We can surely disagree deeply, but doing so with respect for our differences will be more likely to keep the conversation going.

Rosemary Powers